Leaving the Cave Behind

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, July 1, 2021

As we are starting to move out of the many long months of lockdown in Ontario, as so many have been vaccinated and the Covid numbers are trending downward, places around us are at opening up. Throughout these 16 months, I have been re-reading the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whom I also wrote about in May. His story can be found in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 33a-34a.

After the Bar Kokhba revolt, Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar were forced to flee for their lives and spend years in solitary hiding. According to legend, Rabbi Shimon and his son Eleazar hid in a cave for twelve years, where a miraculous well and carob tree sustained them while they spent their days studying and praying. After twelve years in the cave, it was not so easy for Rabbi Shimon and Elazar to come out of the cave and reenter the world as it had become.

About this time last year, or maybe a bit before, we were beginning to realize that the world was not going back to normal anytime soon. Certainly, in the early months of this pandemic, I don’t think many of us anticipated this lasting so long that we would actually need help reorienting ourselves at the end. But now, as we are at last returning to the world which in many ways is not as we knew it before, (and I want us to keep in mind that in some areas of the world the pandemic continues to spread in extreme numbers), we are facing these liminal moments with a complexity of experiences during these past 16 months, and a complexity of feelings.

There is joy, there is celebration and excitement at the reunions that we will have, at the things that we can do –visits, haircuts, hugs! At the same time that we feel excited about reuniting with the people that we missed so much over this long period of social distancing and social isolation many of us are also experiencing feelings of loss and grief at what we have lost in the past 16 months. And as we return to some semblance of normalcy, we wonder about what “normal” will look like and feel like. We may feel anxiety about what will be the same and what will be different – do we even want our experiences and our communities to look or be the same when we have changed so much?

The Talmud tells us that when Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar first emerged from their cave they were experiencing many of these same feelings. They could not look at people in the world doing “normal” things without feeling distressed, and a little bit scared and confused, and maybe even angry because their perception of the world was different now. And in the same way that we have seen restrictions lifted and lockdowns reimposed over these many long months, they had to go back into the cave to process and heal some more before emerging once again.

As we all begin to reemerge from our caves, take the time to sit with the discomforts. It is part of being human that when we are starting something new we have a longing to go back to what is comfortable/ known (even if was 16 months of social distancing and isolation!) because we cannot yet imagine what the other side will be like.

As we begin this process of opening, ask yourself:
What are the things that I am scared of letting go of?
What have I lost?
What are the things that I am worried that I am going to miss?
What are the moments of beauty that I experienced in the pandemic?
What have I learned?
How have I changed?
What or who has been a light for me/sustained me in this pandemic time?

If you are willing to share your answers, I would love to hear your responses. Please share them with me by email.


Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Filed under: Rabbi's Message

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